Bad boys and tough tattoos: the life and times of Phil Sparrow

Today, tattoos can be considered such an ubiquitous part of our mainstream culture. But it’s not always been that way.

After reading up on the history of his craft, Lisbon-based tattoo artist Tiago Ismael wanted to share his thoughts with Inkluded readers.

Tattoo Blog Inkluded

[Pictured: Phil Sparrow’s Tattoo Joynt at South state street, circa 1958, courtesy of the Estate of Samuel M. Steward]

It’s difficult for us to fathom a time when, if you wanted a tattoo, you would need to head to the scruffiest part of town, where the low lives, ex-cons, prostitutes and destitutes delved. A time when, if you wanted to become a tattooist, you would have to choose an alias. Not because it was cool, but due to the fact that having such a shunned occupation under your real name would be a shame to your own family. A time when, as a tattooist, you would choose to go under aliases in order to protect your family.

These are some of the subjects addressed in Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos, a book written by Samuel Steward (alias Phil Sparrow) – writer of homoerotic short stories, friends with Thomas Mann and Jean Cocteau, sexual adventurer and an improbable tattooist.

Bad Boys and Tattoos

[Pictured: Kenneth Anger showing his Lucifer tattoo by Phil Sparrow]

In the early 1950s Phil abandoned a twenty year old career as a university teacher to become a tattooist. Alfred Kinsey, the famous sexologist, talked him into keeping a journal about the goings-on at his tattoo shop. Bear in mind that a tattoo shop back in the ’50s wasn’t the same amiable and friendly place it can be nowadays.

The first time Phil walked in a tattoo shop in Chicago, being used to a somewhat sheltered existence, he almost couldn’t bear it: “the musty smell, the rough wooden floors, the general air of dinginess – it was almost too much.”

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[Pictured: Phil Sparrow at his shop tattooing a sailor, courtesy of the Estate of Samuel M. Steward]

Amid most anecdotes in the book about sailors and inmates Phil eloquently tries to analyse the reasons why people get tattooed: sentimentality; the need to crystallise memories; imitation; existentialism; gang membership; compulsion; masochistic tendencies; crypto-homosexuality; and the guy that just wanted the same tattoo of that person he saw on the beach.

He tells one story of how once he had to tattoo a small flower on a man’s genitalia, according to the client, to serve as proof that he wasn’t “queer”. Illustrator Eric Rivera designed a comic about this particular story (NSFW).

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[Photo: Comic by Eric Rivera]

Phil Sparrow was mentored by Amund Dietzel, the master in Milwaukee, right after taking a correspondence course with Milton Zeis. Around a time when he had Ed Hardy under his wing, Phil tattooed Kenneth Anger and Bobby Beausoleil, the latter being one of the people associated with the Manson’s cult murders. It was a time when tattooing was closely associated with deviancy from the norm.

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[Pictured: Phil Sparrow, Paris, 1957, courtesy of the Estate of Samuel M. Steward]

Tattoo history is often a visual or spoken one, where cold hard written facts are left aside for more interpretable and visual signs, like old flash sheets, photos and stories that are a mix between fiction and fact. Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos is essential in understanding a very taboo aspect of tattooing – the inherent sexuality that is implicit in the act itself, but also to comprehend what it was like to be a tattoo artist in the ’50s and ’60s. A time when being a tattoo artist was more dangerous than glamorous.

Words: Tiago Ismael
Photography: Credited above


  1. Read this book over 20 years ago and it is probably my favourite book and study of tattooing out there….brilliant!


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